The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Kemper Bryant - Basket Maker

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012

Issue: June, 1984

kemper bryantKemper Bryant - Basket MakerFor years Kemper Bryant of Galax, Virginia enjoyed going to auction sales and antique hunting. The thing he looked for first and interested him most was old handmade baskets. As this interest grew, he decided he would learn how to make baskets himself. Not just any style but the old time ways of making baskets.

Kemper contacted an older gentleman, Delbert Burnett of Woodlawn, Virginia who is known in these parts as one of the best basket makers. Mr. Burnett has been making baskets for most of his life. During the big depression, Mr. Burnett said he would load up as many baskets as he could carry on his arms, walk to Galax from Woodlawn and go door to door trying to sell his baskets for 35 cents each. He also caned chair bottoms. He would take a big armful of white oak splits and go door to door recaning chairs for 25 cents each.

When Kemper Bryant approached Delbert Burnett about teaching him to make baskets, it was mid-summer. Mr. Burnett told him to come back in the fall when the sap was down in the white oaks and bring a "split stick" (a white oak sapling no more than 6 inches in diameter) with him.

Fall came and Kemper Bryant was back one Saturday morning with his "split stick". That Saturday he was taught how to make the splits and told if he would come back the next Saturday, he would learn how to bottom chairs.

Kemper Bryant kept on going back until he learned how to make six sizes of white oak baskets with square and rectangular bottoms. He also makes seven sizes of the popular round bottom egg baskets. The smallest egg basket will hold one egg and the largest would probably hold a nest of eggs, setting hen and all.

The white oak and hickory wood used in the baskets is gathered at the appropriate time of year and prepared to work into splits, bails and hoops while the wood is still green. Then it is shaped into thin strips for weaving or bent into the round hoops and put away until Kemper Bryant is ready to weave. At that time, the dry splits are soaked in water to make them pliable again.

Kemper offered these suggestions for the care of baskets. He said, "They're a lot sturdier than you think. The worst thing that could hurt baskets is dirt. It will rot the wood fast. Water is also bad. If you keep dirt and water away from them, they'll last forever." The baskets Kemper Bryant makes are for sale at Roof Top Crafts in Galax, Virginia. He also sells them himself at the Hillsville Gun Show, held each year on Labor Day weekend. He can be contacted any time at his home about baskets. He is happy to explain how they are made and show others the way it is done. In this way, he says, "When I'm gone, somebody else will still know how to make splits and baskets." His baskets range in size from 2 to 16 inches in diameter and sell for $5.00 to $50.00. Kemper Bryant may be contacted at his home address of 212 Cranberry Road, Galax, Va. 24333 or by phone at 703-236-3332.

So many things that were a way of life in the past are now gone forever. If Kemper Bryant has anything to do with it, basket making will never be one of them.

(Editor's note... It's strange how some things work out. Last month we received a letter from Jack M. Phillips of Campobello, South Carolina asking about information on basket making. About the same time, we were contacted about doing an article on Kemper Bryant, Basket Maker. I hope this article is of help to those of you interested in making baskets. Kemper says there really aren't very good books on basket making and that the best way to learn is from seeing them made and asking questions. I interviewed Kemper Bryant myself and his baskets are beautifully well constructed. At present time, he is learning how to make several other styles including a half-egg basket that hangs flat on the wall and a "two pie" flat bottomed basket. The "two pie" basket is an old style that people used to carry food in.

Another basket maker of note is Clovis Boyd of Floyd County, Virginia. He gives demonstrations at Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Institute. He along with others are keeping the craft of basket making alive and well in the heart of the Blue Ridge.)